Return Like a Ghost: Travel Diary – Israel, Berlin, Palestine

The journey of an Israeli professor where ghosts of the past painfully intertwine with country, family and nation

December 11, 2018

I conduct a skype conversation with Muhammad Beiruti, a co-founder of the peace movement 'A Land for All – Two States, One Homeland'. We founded the movement with dozens of other Israelis and Palestinians in 2013, to promote a confederation as a way to break the deadlock.  Early in the conversation Beiruti, who was born in a refugee camp, reminds me:

 "Oren, don't forget -- today marks the 70th anniversary of the UN decision 194 on our right of return, to which we are still waiting. This is a year of great anniversaries, which we see passing by, with no change in our plight…"

His words threw me back to my own journey between anniversaries, dreams, roots and places; between disasters and hopes. A journey intertwined personal events with national landmarks -- all beginning a decade earlier.


April 19, 2008, Passover

Unexpectedly, I receive an invitation to an important conference to be held in Berlin in November for the retirement and 80th birthday of Prof. Peter Marcuse. I taught with Peter at Columbia University in the 1990s and since kept in close contact. Marcuse is one of the most prominent urban critical researchers, and the conference promised to be 'star studded', rich and exciting.

However, I politely refused. As a member of an ex-German family, crushed by the Nazis in WWII, I decided not to visit Germany, nor to buy German products. The next generation may forgive, not me. After my refusal, Peter asks to talk.

"Oren, the conference takes place in Berlin because I was born there as a Jew, because there is a different Germany today, and because we must show that racism does not defeat us. And besides, I know 80 is of special value in Jewish tradition."

After two days of thought and consultation with my family, I agreed. 

Peter Marcuse, Mahmud Darwish, Haim Nachman Bialik


August 14, 2008

Traveling from Beersheba to my family in the north, I pass through the Galilee Palestinian town of Kafr Yassif to meet friend and colleague attorney Bana Shughri, who is accompanied by her young daughter Rama.

"This is a small present for you."

Bana presents me with a new CD by renowned Palestinian singer Amal Murkus called "Longing" ('Shauq'). The disk is sprinkled with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish – the famous poet who passed away just a few weeks earlier.

"Darwish spent much of his youth here, after being expelled from the nearby village of al-Birweh, destroyed during 1948 – our 'Nakbah' (disaster). This is also to remind you of the great poetry of the land."

I then recall that Darwish passed away symbolically on 'tisha'a b'av' – the ninth day of the eleventh month on the Hebrew calendar – a national day of mourning for the Jews that marks the destruction of the two temples and the loss of a homeland.

Bana continues: "Pay special attention to the third song 'Stranger in a Faraway City'." In the car I immediately play the disk. The sounds engulf me in waves - the deep strings of the oud and wavering cry of the flute, together with Murkus's clear, caressing voice - blends with the Galilee scene - the landscape of my beloved homeland region - in a magical and frightening moment,. I am dazed and forced to stop the car, breathing in the powerful music that penetrates me in its softness.

When I was young and handsome
The rose was my home and the spring my sea
The rose became a wound and the spring -- thirst
Have you changed greatly?
No, I have not changed greatly.
When we return like ghosts to our homes
Stare at my forehead and see
The rose turning into nobility
and the spring into sweat
Then you'll remember me as I was
Young and handsome

November 6

Landing in Berlin. The encounter with Germany is loaded with abrupt emotions. The years of growing up in a kibbutz of holocaust survivors reverberate. Our tight Galilee community had a cloud of calamity hanging over our heads, even though we hardly spoke about it beyond official and distant ceremonies.  My German born parents escaped in time, but other close relatives were lost. Our extended family who wanted to reject their German past, couldn't help but return to it again and again with stories, customs, faded pictures, German chatter, and memories of lost lives. Here, in Berlin,  I will try and trace a series of sites and people my mother and sister prepared for me that hold the remnants of our roots - graves and houses, places of family events, an elderly aunt and her children who still live here.

The contact with the city is covered from the outset with a layer of sadness. The atmosphere is melancholic. I walk through the streets and feel the weight of generations on my shoulders. Berlin seems to be listening to my heartbeat, being cool, gray and cloudy. For the entire week I am here the sun does not appear even once. Occasionally a light rain falls. The autumn leaves fly softly everywhere, but scratch like thorns. It all seems a little familiar-the physical appearance of people, the shops and cafes, the well-kept parks, and even the dreaded public housing blocks. Familiar, but remote - a stranger in a far-away city.


November 8, 2008 - Kristallnacht Eve

The Center for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin is packed with hundreds of people. Many stand by the walls or sit in the aisles. Today is the eve of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. At the entrance to the campus, I find a small advertisement commemorating this dreadful occasion, alongside larger notices of events celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall that took place on that same fateful day, the ninth of the 11th month.

On the stage there is a stormy debate over the "right to the city" - one of the topics in which Professor Marcuse set global debates in his diverse and rich writings. A series of academic stars analyze the city from Marxian, civil society or gender perspectives. Brilliant theoretical speeches, including insights about 'the financial crisis' that was then unsettling the world economy, as well as issues of globalization, class struggle, social movements and housing rights. Yet barely a word is uttered in three long sessions about minorities, identities, ethnic cleansing and racism – as if these phenomena exist in a parallel world. A deafening silence right inside a city that gave birth to arguably the worst racist project in history – a project which emerged through the very fabric of the modern city, its institutions, densities, public spaces and ghettos.

Like most Israelis of German descent, I understand Kristallnacht as an event that changed history – the mother of all pogroms. Through the large windows of the conference hall I look at the streets of the city and try to imagine what they looked like seventy years back. Nazi gangs loot, deport, and murder Jews, burn almost all synagogues in German cities including the main synagogue in Berlin, destroy thousands of properties, and evict tens of thousands of Jews in ghettos and camps. As Goebbels wrote in his diary: "People's rage is raging now ... It must be given an outlet ... the windows are shattered, the synagogues are on fire like large old huts -  Bravo!"

The Berlin synagogue after Kristallnacht, 1938. Grandparents, Berlin, 1931.

I sit in the panel of speakers, my thoughts flying to my family who lived here then, and tried, unsuccessfully, to escape. Aunt Ida and her three children – my cousins, my grandparents, my grandmother's brother and his family -- all of whom were murdered or displaced in this terrible war. Thoughts migrate to the millions of Jewish and other refugees who flooded Europe, and then to Palestine and Israel.

The silence of these well-known speakers talking about Berlin, its racist past, the huge Jewish community that was shattered, and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants (Muslims and others) who lived there even then, infuriates me.  The discourse on the stage feels like a cold, distant academy that is aesthetically embellished with fashionable theories and abstract words. On the spot I change my speech planned to deal with the rapid development of 'gray spaces' in multi-ethnic cities (including Berlin) and begin with a description of Kristallnacht, from which I build another angle to the connection between space, identity and oppression.

I quickly download and translate a famous poem by H.N. Bialik – a renowned Jewish poet -- "A City of Killing" (luckily the internet worked - this is Germany after all...), and begin my speech with the immortal lines relating to the "black hole" of urban studies   –

"Get up and go to the city of killing
Come to the courtyards
See in your eyes and feel with your hands
On the fences, the trees and the stones
On the plaster of the walls
The dried blood and the stiff brains
Of the dead in droves...  "

"How can you talk about the right to the city?" I ask the big gallery and line of previous speakers, "without a mention of what happened here just outside the window exactly 70 years ago? And has been taking place in different ways in hundreds of cities in the world ever since - Sarajevo, Belfast, Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Mumbai or Cape Town? How can we speak critically about the right to the city without mentioning what is happening in the global city of Jerusalem in particular and in Israel/Palestine in general? After all, they absorbed the terrible shock waves from the events that began here, on these exact streets? On this stage, the personal, political and academic intertwine, where one could still feel the smoke of burning Jewish shops and the stench of their corpses.

In Marcuse's moving summary, he turned to me and said that not only are your arguments critical issues to urban studies, he furthermore, remembered Kristallnacht as a ten-year-old, and recalled his family's fear and anxiety about their relatives being thrown into camps and ultimately death.

At the end of that decade, as part of the same horrific chain of events, hundreds of thousands were uprooted in my own country, and millions of refugees remain today, dreaming of returning in body and spirit to their village's rose and the spring.


November 9

The morning after the conference, I continue the journey back in time, to meet elderly Aunt Miri, who lives in East Berlin. Her story is amazing - she was born in British Palestine in Kibbutz Hephzibah in the mid-1920s to Zionist-communist parents. Her parents returned to Germany a few years later, because apparently the kibbutz was not 'communist enough'. During the war they were hidden by communist colleagues, smuggled to Sweden and England, and thus survived. After the Holocaust, the family returned to "the land of their dreams - communist Germany." Miri's father, Max, my great uncle, became a senior member of Ulbricht's regime. We meet, together with her son and wife, in a modest Chinese restaurant near the Karl Horst Railway Station.  A flowing conversation develops. The excellent English she had acquired during the years of hiding in England was not forgotten.


I'm interested: "How did you go back to this hell?"

She is defensive: "True, the Nazis ruled for several years, but this was not the real Germany."

When I ask about the unification of the city, she remarks, "The city is not unified, it is conquered by the West "...

I raise the idea of ​​visiting her grandfather's grave, which is my great-grandfather. She answers surprisingly:

"I was never there, he died when we were still in Palestine"

"So let's go and find it?"

"You're sure, it's not that simple, it's a huge cemetery."

"Let's try."


My mood lifts. It seems like remnants of the past are still alive, even if old and frail. We arrange to meet the next day.

On the way back to the hotel, I pass through the Holocaust Memorial. It stands in a large field in the heart of the city, scattered with gray 'coffin-like' slabs of concrete in varying sizes, directly opposite the German Reichstag. The impressive site conveys gloom - as if imprisoning the ghosts of the past in the concrete blocks, perhaps to remind the nearby centers of political power of the eternal possibility of losing humanity, and reverting to violence, expulsion, and genocide. Melancholy returns. Again I am reminded of Darwish returning like a ghost to his ruined home  - here on the ninth day of the 11th month, the day of his death, the day of Kristallnacht, the day of the fall of the wall, the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and most recently -  the Twin Towers disaster. Different calendars, tumultuous events, parallel times.


November 10

On the way to Miri in East Berlin I have a few hours to go through the Jewish Museum. The building is rather "laboring" and artificially glamorous, but the exhibitions impressively illustrate the size, strength and vitality of the Jewish community in pre-war Germany. One has to walk through the many displays in an actual downhill spiral while viewing how the large and prosperous community was devastated, step by step. This is at once inconceivable and very real. I note to myself that I am actually viewing the destruction of my own family, its uprooting, scattering and death within a few short years. My throat is choking with a mixture of anger and sadness.

In Israel, I serve as chairman of 'B'tselem – a large and active NGO working for human rights in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.  I work daily to protect the rights of millions under occupation, colonialism and abuse. Yet, in my account of the dire situation of Palestine, I consistently refrain from comparing the Holocaust to the Nakba, because these are events of a different magnitude - even if connected. While they are both national disasters of immense consequences, one should not compare the genocide of a marginal, small and helpless minority to ethnic expulsion as part of a territorial conflict. Yet, in the face of the hard hitting exhibition about the system that made the Jewish community a defenseless outcast whose life can be taken with impunity, I realize again the importance of the struggle for human rights of all, regardless of color, class, gender religion or nationality. .

I meet Miri and navigate the way to the cemetery. The clerk opens the long lists, and finds three graves with the name of our common grandfather - Hermann Baer. What to do? There is no choice; we have to search for all three graves, according to the somewhat ancient paper maps given to us by the office.

We set out purposefully; Miri is walking slowly behind me while thin rain begins to fall. This cemetery is indeed huge --  more than 100,000 graves. Despite being engulfed by death and tragedy, one cannot ignore the surrounding beauty as many of the graves are scattered within a forest, painted with yellow, orange and gold autumn colors.

After about half an hour we arrive at one tomb with the correct name, but – alas - the dates of birth and dates do not match. Miri is very tired and we take a break. It took twenty more minutes of difficult walking through piles of leaves and branches, to find the right grave. Here he is -- Herman Zvi Bar 1859-1931. The moment is very moving for both of us. We find small stones to place on the grave. Then we sit among the fallen leaves, under our umbrella and eat neatly cut cheese sandwiches and two slices of cake prepared by Miri (very German, no?). Miri tells me again about her childhood and youth, and about losing her connection to Judaism except for the flimsy contact kept by my mother and sister.

We keep silent on the way home. I drive slowly and carefully, as if in mourning.

"Luckily", she finally says, "he died before Kristallnacht and the Nazis; he loved Germany."


November 11

My night is restless. This city is bewildering -- dark and painful and at the same time pretty and welcoming. This intensity of sites, histories and meanings is confusing and exciting. I still feel like a tiny molecule in a cruel time machine - there are a few more things to do before my return. First I find the Rosencrantz Cafe, where according to the family mythology, my grandparents met for a first date in the 1920s.  I order Apfelkuchen and coffee, of course.  The style is reminiscent of the cafes that used to be in the old areas of Haifa and Nahariya, only classier, more polite and plenty of tableware.

I continue to the next site and find Ida's apartment without difficulty - my father's sister and her young children who were deported and perished. The Schoenberg area in the west of the city is well planned and nicely maintained, but its beauty fails to ward off the sadness that rises from every corner to the close family life that was cut short so ruthlessly. I look at the letters sent by Ida to my father in May 1939 before the final deportation and collapse.

"Dear Leo,

 Now are such difficult times in which we live, for you and for us, so sad not to hear from all the relatives ... I am nervous to know whether the parents will be able to get to England and from there to wait for their wanderings. Committee. "

Instead of England, their parents (my grandparents) were deported to the Vilna ghetto, their city of origin, and to their final destination - Auschwitz. There are testimonies that suggest they were killed in the Pinar Forest on the way to the camp. The city and the state stripped them of their rights solely on the basis of their identity.

A few years after my trip, the Berlin municipality, together with my sister, organized a ceremony to lay a golden 'stumbling block' ('stolperstein') on the pavement, exactly where I stood. This city is awash with memories of evil and death, but also knows best - perhaps ironically - to remember and commemorate. In a ceremony we held with a local community in a nearby school, I read a few chilling lines from another Darwish poem: a poem about refugees, wherever they may be:

The last evening

The last evening on this land
... we will not part from anything
And will not have time to conclude
Everything remains in place
While the place replaces its guests.

Our tea is green and hot – drink!
And our peanuts are fresh – eat!.
And our beds are green, made of cedar wood – lie!
Rest after the long siege
And fall asleep on the feathers of our dreams.


November 12

A farewell meeting at a coffee shop with Prof. Marcuse, his wife Francis and other colleagues I met in Berlin - a dynamic and inspiring group of young researchers. Marcuse and his colleagues, who are working for social justice in the city, remind me that there is a new Germany, that there is a historic change. They are right, but I still feel like the ghost flying in a vanished world. On the way to the airport, more lines from Bialik's poem echo in my mind:

And now what do you have here, man
Get up and escape!
Carry with you a glass of sorrow
Tear your soul into shreds
And shed a big tear over the edge of great rocks


November 14, 2008 - Birweh

Friday, immediately after I return, I make my way to my family in the north, full of photos, stories and experiences. I decide to travel through the destroyed village of al-Birweh. A short drive through the Jewish village of Achihud towards the cowsheds on the opposite hill, the remains of Darwish's village are still visible. I pass through small piles of ruins, some 'sabra' bushes, old dirt trails, and the remains of a small, fenced cemetery that still retains its graves.

"What are you looking for here?" asks a farmer on a tractor as he drives by.

"Demons and ghosts," I respond.

He laughs and drives away.


I attach a small page with a poem to one of the stones on the outskirts of the cemetery:

You are now
In a refuge from your refuge
Perhaps you will meet my father there
He too was thrown
From his town and home
The two of you may be talking leisurely
About the folly
In which ghosts evict ghosts
Instead of living together
And ending the terrible cost.

No, I am not accepting your invitation:
I will not drink your cup of tea
I will not lie un your bed
And will not rest on the feathers of your dreams
Nor will my soul tear into shreds
Or merely cry over the edge of great rocks

Instead I invite you
Along with ghosts of the past
Present and future
For a novel dance, a new call
For the first evening
On the joint land for all.

The ruins of al-Birweh, 2008.



A decade later, December, 2018. Members of 'A Land for All' peace movement meet, as mentioned above, near Jericho. Among them Muhammad Beiruti whose family was evicted in 1948, and he grew up in a refugee camp. I ask Beiruti why he joined a movement based on a mutual recognition of the connection of two peoples to the entire land of Israel/Palestine, that is – recognizing the Jews as well, he does not hesitate: "I am a refugee who wishes to return, but not at your expense. I have the right to return, recognized exactly seventy year ago in 1948, but has never been allowed… the only security for both of us – nations of refugees --  is a safe home. This is a future of two independent and open states, with freedom of movement for all Palestinians and Jews who have, after all, the same homeland. It is the only way to get out of our bloody mess in which we have lived for decades. "

I hear Beiruti and my thoughts return to Berlin and Birweh. Not only seventy years to the Nakbah, but eighty years since Kristallnacht. Indeed, the age of eighty -- 'Gvurot' is special in Jewish tradition -- as Prof. Marcuse noted. The term means the heroic overcoming of life's hardships. In the current climate, the struggle for reconciliation and recognition of the common bond of Jews and Palestinians to their homeland is the true heroism, in contrast to the comfortable cowardice of continued oppression, conflict and violence. Will 'gvurot' mark the beginning of reconciliation? If so, it will certainly start with embracing the ghosts that keep returning to their homes.




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